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4G Mobile Trials Have Begun in Cuba - What Is Their 3/4/5G Strategy?

Larry Press

Early 4G speed test (Source)During the first month of 3G mobile service, Cuban Internet use increased substantially. At the end of January, ETECSA had 5.4 million mobile users, 35% of which use the Internet and they are adding 5,000 new data customers per day. According to Eliecer Samada, head of ETECSA's wireless access group, the company is now at 160% of the expected capacity.

As a result of that unexpected demand and damage due to the tornado that hit Havana in January, both data and phone service have been slow and unreliable.

To alleviate these problems, ETECSA announced last week that they were accelerating 4G mobile trials along the north coast from Mariel through Havana to Varadero. That is a distance of about 100 miles with 44 4G base stations. The trial will be open to about 10,000 high-volume users who have 4G-compatible phones and have been using at least 2.5 GB of 3G mobile data per month in that area. (ETECSA reports that 7% of 3G network users account for 52% of the traffic).

Andy GarcĂ­a ran a speed test using his neighbor's account and recorded a download speed of 5.52 Mbps, upload speed of 1.18 Mbps and a 24.17 ms latency, but a few days later, he observed slower rates and Armando Camacho recently recently reported a speed of 3.2 Mbps download and 5.8 Mbps upload and he has posted the locations of 21 base stations in Havana. We can't draw conclusions about the post-trial speeds from a few tests, but they will surely be faster than current 3G speeds and considerably slower than the US LTE speeds reported last month by Tom's Guide.

Current US 4G speeds (Source)ETECSA expects this trial to divert enough traffic to improve 3G and voice service. If that is the case, it seems the current congestion is at the base stations rather than in backhaul from them. Regardless, I expect that backhaul capacity from faster 4G base stations will constrain 4G rollout in this and other regions.

I don't know what ETECSA's mobile deployment strategy is — what the balance will be between 3 and 4G capacity and pricing — but I have suggested that they will gain trained, demanding users if they focus on bringing the cost down as quickly as possible. That would argue for cheap or even free 3G service.

The average price of 1 GB of mobile data in Cuba is higher than that in 184 of 230 nations. (The price in ten of the 28 Caribbean nations is higher than in Cuba and India is the lowest-price nation). The source does not indicate the speeds of these services and it would be interesting to see them normalized for per-capita income as an indication of affordability, but there seems to be room for price cutting in Cuba.

Regardless of the deployment and pricing of 3 and 4G mobile Internet access in Cuba, both should be regarded as stopgap measures and plans should be made for 5G deployment.

Update Mar 21, 2019

ETECSA initially restricted 4G access to those with 2.5 GB per month data plans. 14Ymedio reports that they have now opened 4G up to those with 1.5 GB per month plans in spite of having temporarily run out of the USIM cards that are required for 4G access. (USIM cards obsoleted SIM cards, which were used in 2G phones and could be used, with the loss of some features, in 3G phones).

The article also states that they are adding 50,000 new mobile accounts per month, as opposed to the 5,000 per day reported above. They say that 40% of those users generate some sort of data traffic — for Nauta email, MMS messages or Web browsing.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.comVisit Page
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